At what point do accusations of sexual harassment become a witch hunt?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.


“I love Louis C.K. and that was really, obviously just a fucking hard thing to see happen to somebody,” Burr said on his podcast earlier this week. “He was 100 percent wrong, he did own up to it. And I think he will definitely be back, I will say that.” Burr engaged in familiar rhetoric, a reference “witch hunts” and appealing to “due process.” “This kind of seems like it’s become…it doesn’t make a difference if it’s sexual misconduct, all the way to sexual assault/rape,” Burr said. “You’re getting the exact same level of punishment. [Louis C.K.] was definitely wrong, obviously. This is all obvious shit that I’m saying, but does the punishment match the crime?”

Any reference to “witch hunt” is a reference to the Salem Witch Trials. But Betty Parris, age 9, and her cousin Abigail Williams, age 11, did not directly kill anyone. There was tension among the ruling elites of Massachusetts. Some secular elite factions were aware that the notion of witches had disappeared from England, and they wanted to see Massachusetts modernize its mentality. Other factions, especially the religious ones, wanted to take a strong stand against the forces of Satan. To the extent that there were violations of human rights, it wasn’t because Betty Parris and Abigail Williams made accusations — in a normal human society, we expect 9 year olds and 11 year olds to have active imaginations, and we also expect them to be testing the limits of their power with regards to adults. A sane human society has no problem keeping that particular tension under control. For an imaginative 9 year old girl to kill 56 people, there needs to be a general break down in adult society, and that break down grew out of the tension between the religious and secular elites of Massachusetts.

Those who say the current wave of accusations of sexual harassment amount to a “witch hunt” would have to show where the government is violating their human rights. Or one could argue that civil society can be as totalitarian as the government. One could, hypothetically, imagine a society in which no one takes negative action against anyone (not even firing someone from a job) without involving the government. That is to say, a society without an independent civil public space. But societies such as that tend towards totalitarianism, and therefore the Western nations have built some safe guards into their societies, allowing for independent action by non-state actors. The English speaking nations go further in this direction than other European nations. And indeed, in a place like Germany it would be more difficult to fire an employee because of an accusation of sexual harassment — the evidence would need to be strong, and it would have to be directly related to the employer who is doing the firing.

The English speaking countries all have laws that make it easier for employers to fire employees (compared to Germany, France, etc). Perhaps these laws should be changed, but they should not be selectively invoked. If WalMart has the power to fire a cashier who might have yelled at a customer, then Netflix has the power to fire Kevin Spacey for possibly engaging in sexual assault. None of us should want to live in a country that gives employers a maximum freedom to fire people, unless the employee is accused of sexual assault, and then suddenly that worker acquires special rights — such a scenario would be the worst of all possible worlds.

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